Britain’s 50-year-old drugs policy has failed – but is the UK ready to rethink its attitude to narcotics?

The rise in popularity of recreational drugs was meant to have been halted by 1971 legislation, yet drugs remain easy to access and the UK has the highest drugs-related death rate in Europe

Ian Hamilton
Wednesday 26 May 2021 18:16

If you remember 1971, then you’ll recall the phenomenon that was the “tartan teen sensation” – the Bay City Rollers. Flares were in for the first time and the legislation that still governs which drugs we are allowed to use was born. We hadn’t even joined the European Economic Community at that point – that would take another two years. Before we became preoccupied with Europe, our politicians were concerned about the increasingly liberal view towards cannabis, LSD and amphetamines, and so it was that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 came into effect 50 years ago this month.

The rise in popularity of these drugs was meant to have been halted, or at least dented, by introducing legislation that would impose penalties, not just for those who supplied the drugs but also those who consumed them. The idea of evidence-informed policy hadn’t yet emerged – we would have to wait for Tony Blair before that happened. Makes you wonder just what did inform policy previously. In the case of the 1971 act it was left in the main to the whims of a few politicians and civil servants with token input from a couple of medical types. Transform, an organisation calling for reform of the act, provides a fascinating timeline of how this policy has played out over the last five decades.

Unfortunately, even now few policies are formally assessed as to how successful or not they are in achieving their ambitions. The goal of the 1971 act was laudable: namely, to protect the population from the harms that drugs can cause. Few would argue with that, but by almost any measure this policy has proved to be a catastrophic failure. Rather than protect the people that it’s meant to serve, it has unleashed untold damage.

The UK has the highest numbers of drug-related deaths in Europe and sets new records year on year with these fatalities. Although bad enough, it’s not just deaths that signal policy failure, it’s the fact that millions continue to use drugs like cannabis and cocaine. Price and availability of drugs have also proved resilient, with drugs remaining affordable and easy to access.

If you want the ultimate measure of how ineffective the policy is as a deterrent, look no further than the continuing inability to keep drugs out of prisons. If this policy fails to restrict access to the most secure environments, little wonder it’s impotent outside them.

But policies are only words; it’s people that implement them, and that’s where a perverse and truly damaging aspect of this legislation emerges. The fishing expeditions operated by the police when carrying out stop and search have routinely been justified on the grounds of drug dealing. Again, the evidence clearly conflicts with these explanations. Despite young white men being more likely to use drugs, it is young black men who are nine times more likely to experience stop and search – adding racial injustice to the string of other injustices this policy facilitates.

We’ve witnessed the willingness of politicians to adopt and be guided by the evidence during the Covid pandemic and thank goodness for that. But it throws into stark relief other aspects of our lives that are impacted by ineffective and unevidenced policies. Reform of a policy that is 50 years old is long overdue, but we have to ensure that if this policy is reviewed, any changes are an improvement on what we have now.

Science and evidence will only take us so far. It will still be people that implement policies new and old – the question is how much has popular opinion changed towards drugs and those that use them in the past 50 years. I’m not sure it has changed and until it does, we effectively sanction policy inaction by our political leaders.

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